Culture has rarely tired of speaking about the weather. Pastoral poems detail the seasonal variations in weather ad nauseam, while the term “pathetic fallacy” is often taken to refer to a Romantic poet’s wilful translation of external phenomena – sun, rain, snow – into aspects of his own mind. Victorian novels, too, use weather as a device to convey a sense of time, place and mood: the fog in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), for example, or the wind that sweeps through Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847).
And yet the same old conversations fundamentally changed tense during World War I. Because during the war, weather forecasting turned from a practice based on looking for repeated patterns in the past, to a mathematical model that looked towards an open future.
Needless to say, a lot relied on accurate weather forecasting in wartime: aeronautics, ballistics, the drift of poison gas. But forecasts at this time were in no way reliable. Although meteorology had developed throughout the Victorian era to produce same-day weather maps and daily weather warnings (based on a telegram service that could literally move faster than the wind), the practice of forecasting the weather as it evolved and changed over time remained notoriously inadequate.
English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson saw that the pre-War practice of weather forecasting was much too archival in nature, merely matching observable weather phenomena in the present to historical records of previous weather phenomena.
This, he deemed, was a fundamentally unscientific method, as it presupposed that past evolutions of the atmosphere would repeat in the future. For the sake of more accurate prediction, he claimed, it was essential that forecasters felt free to disregard the index of the past.
And so, in 1917, while working in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit on the Western Front, Richardson decided to experiment with the idea of making a numerical forecast – one based on scientific laws rather than past trends. He was able to do so because on May 20, 1910 (also, funnily enough, the date of Edward VII’s funeral in London, the last coming together of Europe’s Royal pedigree before World War I) Norwegian meteorologist Vilhelm Bjerknes had simultaneously recorded atmospheric conditions across Western Europe. He had noted temperature, air pressure, air density, cloud cover, wind velocity and the valences of the upper atmosphere.